Relix 44: Phil Cook
Welcome to the Relix 44. To commemorate the past 44 years of our existence, we’ve created a list of people, places and things that inspire us today, appearing in our September 2018 issue and rolling out on Relix.com throughout this fall. See all the articles posted so far here.
Man of the People: Phil Cook
A few months back, Phil Cook was sitting with his brother Brad Cook and Justin Vernon in the latter’s studio just outside of Eau Claire, Wis., cracking into a bottle of fine whiskey and some really beautiful sativa and listening to their teenage friendship play through the speakers.
The former members of beloved early 2000s band DeYarmond Edison hadn’t caught up in a bit. There was incalculable news to share. Vernon’s Bon Iver remains one of indie-rock’s finest enigmas; Brad is now an in-demand producer, player and manager; and Phil has just wrapped his second solo record (not counting his 2011 instrumental album Hungry Mother Blues), People Are My Drug. “We created this tribe back then, shining a light onto each other’s dark path of adolescence,” says Phil Cook, who continued to play music with Brad in Megafaun for years after DeYarmond Edison parted ways. “I’m so grateful to look back on the people I learned to play music with.”
The importance of a tight community never left Phil—and the theme is front and center on People Are My Drug, a warm, worn-in collection of gospel- infused, roots-rock and folk-blues tunes. Phil’s journey from bandmate to frontman was a long one: his solo debut, 2015’s Southland Mission, arrived nearly two decades after he first stepped onstage and, in addition to his steady post in Hiss Golden Messenger, he has recently played with the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, Matthew E. White, The Blind Boys of Alabama and many others.
A marathon of collaborations around 2013, “Opened up my brain and heart to the possibilities that maybe I could also run in the pack,” says Phil, “That I had my own things to say and contribute to the canon of American musical expression.”
With the help of his touring band, he recorded People Are My Drug front to back in 10 days, split between Vernon’s studio and Brad’s backyard shed in North Carolina. “We came in with confidence, and played from the gut, full of feeling,” says Phil.
People Are My Drug is a more sober take on the summer BBQ soul of Southland Mission. Its centerpiece is “Another Mother’s Son,” a meditation on police brutality, featuring the lyrics, “Police man let his pistol free/ and the poet ran to write a eulogy… But only mama, she holds all that silence.”
“[Parenthood] to me is the biggest window of empathy and growth,” says Phil. “The problem will never be solved unless our society, especially the silent, white, sympathetic majority, are ready to break their silence. We need to see ourselves in any mother, in any family.”
“We chose to raise our kids in a community with strong, female leaders and people of color,” he continues, noting his adopted home of Durham, N.C. “I want my kids to know the beauty of a garden with more than one kind of flower.”
The album—nine tracks of living, breathing, deeply human, Southern soul—finds Phil embracing his surroundings with lyrics of unity and compassion.
But the magic he’s felt out of the spotlight has never left him.
“So often, nowadays, I suddenly find myself onstage playing with someone I respect,” he says. “If I’m not pinching myself at least once a year, I’ve lost something.”
This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.